Much like nearly every other year this decade, there was little question as to which two PAC 7 boys volleyball teams were the strongest heading into this season.
On one hand, San Luis Obispo High won league championships from 2001 to 2007, including shares of the banner in 2003 and 2007.
Arroyo Grande, however, broke that streak with an outright title of its own in 2008 before the two shared the top spot last season. Which of the rivals would prevail this year has been similarly difficult to figure out, as both entered the week 2-0 in PAC 7 play.
San Luis Obispo seized an early lead in the race Tuesday night before a crowd of about 500 at James Gym, edging the host Eagles in a 3-2 thriller, 19-25, 25-15, 23-25, 25-20, 15-10.
“A.G.’s always the team to beat, every year,” Tigers senior outside hitter Chip Blaney said. “This (win) just means the world to us.”
Midway through the emotional match, a red card handed out for unsportsmanlike conduct led to San Luis Obispo opening the fourth set down 1-0, although it quickly found its poise, going up 6-2 en route to forcing the decisive game.
Then, despite trailing 3-1 and 7-6 in the final set, the Tigers tallied eight of the next nine points, taking their largest lead at 14-8 immediately after a final Arroyo Grande timeout that proved to be in vain.
“We can’t take anything away from Arroyo Grande,” Tigers coach Manny Carter said. “They played a great match and just kept on nagging at us. My guys were tired that last set, and they just dug deep. I’m so proud of them right now, I can’t even speak.”
As soon as the match was over, San Luis Obispo’s side burst into raucous celebration.
“Everybody wanted that win so bad,” Blaney said. “I remember a couple times I looked at the bench after a kill, and they would all be on the floor, screaming and jumping. It just goes to show, even guys who didn’t get on to the court were into the (match).”
The Tigers (13-1, 3-0 PAC 7) — who were in the others-receiving-votes category in Monday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2 rankings — were encouraged a month ago by their fourth-place showing at their own 20-team invitational that was won by Saint Margaret’s of San Juan Capistrano, the second-ranked squad in Division 5.
“We went into this season thinking we could be No. 1,” Blaney said of the Tigers’ PAC 7 hopes. “And now, beating a really good team like A.G. just makes us feel even better about our chances.”
Blaney and Nick Butier each had a match-best 19 kills for the Tigers, while Keilan Meertens distributed 49 assists. Jeremy Cleere compiled 29 digs for San Luis Obispo.
For Arroyo Grande (4-3, 2-1 PAC 7), Tyler Slocum posted a team-high 14 kills, while Danny Meritt added seven. Christian Wiens had 30 assists in defeat.
“It was a great match,” Eagles coach Laurel Allen said. “I’m proud of the boys. Our team played their hearts out. It could’ve gone either way.”
In the opening game, Arroyo Grande used a 6-0 run to turn a 4-4 tie into a 10-4 advantage.
San Luis Obispo found a resurgence in the second game, however, shifting a 9-8 deficit into a 16-9 lead. The Tigers then rallied from a 21-16 hole in Game 3 for a 23-23 deadlock but couldn’t pull ahead.
The schools will get a rematch April 29 at San Luis Obispo High.
“It’s a long season,” Allen said. “There are plenty more matches to go.”
The Tigers are enjoying their current success a year after graduating a handful of key starters, including 6-foot-6 opposite Shane Kennedy, as well as star outside hitter Julian Demalleville.
“I don’t think many schools expected us to be this good,” Carter said of their fast start, “but we’ve worked really, really hard to get to where we’re at, and our record shows that.”